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Free Things To Do in the Smokies for the Budget-Minded Traveler – Part 5

elk in the great smoky mountains of nc

Pisgah Forest and Cherokee Edition

This is part five of a five part series that will help stretch those vacation dollars a little further by exploring free things to do in the Smokies of North Carolina.

  • Part one Waynesville, Maggie Valley, and Sylva Edition
  • Part two – Bryson City Edition
  • Part three – Franklin & Highlands Edition
  • Part four – Fontana, Robbinsville, and Lake Santeetlah Edition
  • Part five – Pisgah Forest and Cherokee Edition

Deep in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Pisgah National Forest is a paradise of magnificent waterfalls, pristine trails, and historical sites with remarkable national significance.

Cradle of Forestry

The Cradle of Forestry in the Pisgah National Forest is home to the first forestry school in the US and the birthplace of conservation. Wander about the 6,400-acres of paved trails, which are conducive to easy walking, strollers, and wheelchairs. Explore 7 historical buildings dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s and ring the bell of a 1914 Climax logging train engine.

Learn about the significance of the site, forest management, and traditional Blue Ridge culture through a short film in their spacious theater and historical interpreters. Before you leave, be sure to stop by the gift shop for nature-themed toys, crafts, and books. Admission is free.

sliding rock in the pisgah national forest

Sliding Rock – A Top Free Thing To Do In the Smoky Mountains

Sliding Rock is the rockstar of outdoor water fun in the Pisgah Forest, a great free thing to do in the Smokies. This 60-foot natural waterslide empties into a frigid 7-foot-deep plunge pool. It can get crowded, but there is a lifeguard on duty in the summer months. Parking in the lot is $3/person, but kids under 3 are free and unpaid parking is available along the roadway.

Looking Glass Falls

The state’s best-known and most-popular waterfall is Looking Glass Falls in the Pisgah National Forest. The falls can be reached via an easy 0.3-mile out-and-back trail just off US 276. There is a wheelchair-accessible lookout area just before the stairs leading down to the base of the falls, a popular place for wading and swimming.

Moore Cove Falls

Just a short distance from Looking Glass Falls along US 276 is the lesser-known but equally stunning Moore Cove Falls. There isn’t a sign for the falls, but there is a small parking area by a stone bridge and an information sign marking the trailhead. The falls can be reached by a relatively easy, 3/4-mile, out-and-back hike . The trail takes you over a wooden pedestrian bridge to the 50-foot cascades. This is one of only a handful of falls in the area that you can actually walk behind.

No Cost Things to Do in Cherokee

Visitors at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and river trail.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Cherokee, NC is a wonderland of adventure and history with near limitless opportunities for no-cost fun free things to do in the Smokies. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center stands at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain State Park and is a good place to get maps, browse an informative bookstore, and speak to rangers about your park visit.

Adjacent to the visitor center is the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of farm buildings once scattered throughout the park and reassembled here. Explore the log farmhouse, barn, apple house, working blacksmith shop, and spring house to get a glimpse into the lives of how families lived a hundred years ago. The farm also features agriculture and livestock.

Mingus Mill

A 0.5 mile north of the center is Mingus Mill, a historic gristmill that uses a water-powered turbine instead of a water wheel, but it is currently closed for renovations.

Mingo Falls

Mingo Falls is a roaring cascade within the Qualla Boundary, a land trust of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It is one of the tallest waterfalls in the area, standing at 120-feet high. At the base, there are plenty of places to lounge on the rocks and enjoy a picnic or sunbath in the mist. It is reached by a short but moderately difficult 0.4-mile trail from the Mingo Falls Campground.

man taking video of soco falls

Soco Falls

Soco Falls in the heart of Cherokee is another stunning waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation. It is reached by an easy 0.2-mile loop trail just outside of Cherokee in nearby Maggie Valley.

Fire Mountain Trails

For another outstanding outdoor adventure, hit the 10.5 miles of multi-use Fire Mountain Trails through the Great Smoky Mountains in Cherokee. The trailhead is in the parking lot of the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Mountain bikers will appreciate the berms, elevations, tables, and blinds that keep things interesting on the ride. The trail is shared by hikers and runners, so please proceed with awareness and caution for their safety.

Oconaluftee Island Park

For an unforgettable family experience, visit Oconaluftee Island Park, an island oasis in the Oconaluftee River. Wade in the cool river water, explore the nature trails, and picnic on the riverbank. It is a very popular spot to enjoy an easy, relaxing morning. In the warmer months, the park hosts weekly Native American bonfires and tales of traditional legends.

Entrance to the farm museum, national park, waterfalls and trails is free. Once you’ve roamed their lands, begin your journey into the culture of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual is a gallery dedicated to the preservation of Cherokee craftsmanship and skill. Since 1946, it has promoted this sovereign nation’s artistry on every shelf and display.

The co-op represents over 350 Native American members showcasing their pottery, wood working, quilts, jewelry, dreamcatchers wall hangings, and bone knives. You’ll see intricate beadwork, wooden carvings, fingerweavings, masks, paintings, and more than 12 styles of baskets, each with their unique materials and purpose. There is so much to take in and learn here, you’ll lose yourself for hours. Fortunately, you are welcome to purchase the artwork as an everlasting memory of your trip.

There is no entrance fee to the gallery making this a great free thing to do in the Smokies.